Saturday, June 18, 2011

Just call me a conscientious carnivore

Keith Burgess-Jackson, a vegetarian, posted an interesting quote on eating meat from A Political Philosophy by Roger Scruton. Here's the final paragraph:

Furthermore, I would suggest not only that it is permissible for those who care about animals to eat meat; they have a duty to do so. If meat-eating should ever become confined to those who do not care about animal suffering then compassionate farming would cease. All animals would be kept in battery conditions and the righteous vegetarians would exert no economic pressure on farmers to change their ways. Where there are conscientious carnivores, however, there is a motive to raise animals kindly. And conscientious carnivores can show their depraved contemporaries that it is possible to ease one’s conscience by spending more on one’s meat. Bit by bit the news would get around, that there is a right and a wrong way to eat; and—failing some coup d’état by censorious vegetarians—the process would be set in motion, that would bring battery farming to an end. Duty requires us, therefore, to eat our friends.

I'm definitely carnivorous (technically, I'm omnivorous), but I'm also an animal lover, so this idea appealed to me. My first thought against it, however, is that Scruton limits the possible influence "righteous vegetarians" could have on farmers to economic pressure. But surely they could exert other kinds of pressure that would have an influence on cruel farming practices. My second thought against it is this argument would apply equally to cannibalism: if the only people who eat members of ethnic group A are those who care nothing of their suffering, then there will be no motivation to minimize such suffering. If we really care about ethnic group A, "duty requires us, therefore, to eat our friends." Of course, one could get around this by adding more to the equation: human beings are not merely animals; we have other motivations for eating animals than simply reducing their suffering; etc. But by itself, the quoted argument strikes me as insufficient. Of course, there's a whole book surrounding it, so maybe I should read it instead of pass judgment on it.


Matt K said...

Hi Jim,

Found your site through Quodlibeta.

This argument seems like it would work for slavery with humans (might be a bit more relevant than cannibalism). If the only people who buy human slaves are the ones who do not care about them then then the slave traders have no incentive to treat their slaves compassionately. Because slavery is a black market that seems to be the case, slave traders care nothing about treating their slaves well outside of the need to keep them in just good enough condition for the market (at least the fatted calf gets fattened). Not sure this justifies legalizing slavery though.

Ilíon said...

Two points I would make are:

1) he speaks of "eas[ing] one's conscience by spending more on meat" ... which sounds to me like nothing more than moral preening combined with conspicuous consumption.

2) farmers *already* have motive for treating their animals well ... it's called profit and loss.